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Self-harm is not just attention-seeking: it’s time to talk openly about the issue

Three years ago, with her parents and sisters out for dinner, then-13-year-old Lucy found herself alone in her family’s Lincolnshire home. Dressed in her pink Tinker Bell pyjamas, she began to make herself a cup of tea. Then she spotted an object on the kitchen counter that immediately diverted her attention. “Shall I do it?” Lucy asked herself. “Will it stop the pain?”

For Lucy, now 17, that evening marked the start of a two-and-a-half year struggle with self-harm. Two weeks before, she had been brutally attacked and raped (which she now describes as “the incident”). At the time, anxious they wouldn’t believe her, Lucy never fully revealed to anyone what had happened. In her mind, she tried to repress the rape. She began shutting herself in her bedroom. She told her parents she was feeling unwell. Physical pain, she decided, was the only way to purge her pent-up emotional pain.

“When you keep all your problems in, it feels like you’re screaming inside,” Lucy says. “But when you cut or burn yourself, the pain is more physical. You feel like you’re releasing that scream. After a few months, self-harming became part of my daily routine.”

Eventually, both at school or at home, Lucy was self-harming four times a day. She wore black jeans, black tops and even black gloves to conceal her scars. “I pushed everyone everyone away” Lucy says. “I stopped caring about school. My grades suffered. Self-harm became a real obsession. It took over my life.”

Today, having made a huge effort to stop, Lucy has not self-harmed for more than six months. But self-harm is still on the rise among the UK’s young population. Data published last year by a collaborate study from England Health Behaviour in School Aged Children (HBSC) revealed that up to one in five 15-year-olds across the country self-harm. During the past decade, according to the same study, there has been a three-fold increase in the total number of UK teenagers self-harming.

What drives young people to self-harm? Therapist Jenna Mutlick, who has a personal experience of it, says it is usually some form of “self-punishment”. People believe they have done something wrong – even when they haven’t – and then feel they deserve the pain. “I know a few people who self-harm because they are bullied and eventually come to believe that they then deserve to be bullied,” she says. “When you self-harm, it is so hard to escape from the [mental] space that you are in.”

“It’s a very heterogeneous group of people who self-harm, and there are a variety of reasons why people might start,” says Professor Glyn Lewis, head of psychiatry at University College London. “Clearly, there are people who self-harm because they want to take their own lives, but there are also people who want to self-harm because they are in difficult situations or want to relieve stress.

“As a long-term strategy, of course, self-harm is not very effective,” he adds, “but people do report that they get some form of relief from upsetting thoughts or emotions. Some forms of self-harm are obviously very dangerous, but there’s a continuum. Some people may only scratch themselves very superficially, for example, which won’t do any long-lasting damage.”

The causes of self-harm are likely to be complex, even if the person harming does not see the issues in that way. Kieran, from Glasgow, began self-harming after five years of “constant” physical and verbal bullying at school. His parents split up when he was seven, though he says it was the bullying – which still torments him today – that incited his self-harming. “The bullying made me feel really unbalanced,” says Kieran, now 23. “I started to self-harm when I was aged 11, and it kind of just snowballed from there. I stopped eating. I isolated myself from a lot of my friends and family. I kept it a secret for almost a decade.”

Like Lucy, Kieran says that self-harming became a secret obsession. The bullying made him feel “physically and mentally numb”. Self-harm, by contrast, made Kieran feel more alive, and he would regularly self-harm in his bedroom at night. “It brought me out of my slumber,” he says. “It made me feel normal, and I became addicted to doing it for that reason.” He says that the self-harm was like an “adrenaline shot” that brings everything back into focus.”

Kieran admits that he still has a “daily battle” with self-harm. He is significantly better than he was a few years ago, though, when he would harm himself up to 400 times in one evening. “It’s a high level of emotional distress that causes people to resort to self-harming,” he says. “People sometimes feel like they can’t cope with their emotion. It’s how they cope with life’s daily stresses.”

Chris Leaman, from the UK mental health charity YoungMinds, says it is still very much a taboo subject in British society. “Every year, we work with Childline, YouthNet and selfharmUK to try and combat these sort of stigmas for Self-Harm Awareness Day,” he says. “There is a definite problem around young men not feeling like they can talk about their issues, which can make self-harm quite a common issue among them.”

“Some people do talk about self-harm quite openly, but that’s relatively unusual,” says Professor Glyn Lewis. “A lot of people conceal self-harming behaviour from their friends and family. There are not necessarily signs to look out for; it’s more a case of often asking people how they are feeling, and keeping communication open with them. As a rule, families and friends concerned about someone self-harming always should talk to the person themselves and encourage them to seek professional help.”

Statistically, teenage girls are still more than twice as likely to self-harm than young males, and this has helped create another gender-based stigma: that self-harming girls are simply seeking attention. Fiona Brooks, professor of adolescent and child health at the University of Hertfordshire, who led the investigations for last year’s HBSC report, identifies this as a prevalent problem. “Nowadays, young people are in a much more uncertain world than before,” she says. “Instead of self-harming just being dismissed as attention seeking, it’s something that needs to be taken seriously. Equally, if young girls are self-harming for attention, that’s a different matter that needs to be taken just as seriously.”

Lucy thinks back on that evening she started self-harming, and wishes that she could tell herself to stop – and talk to someone. Talking, like with most former self-harmers, has been a significant part of Lucy’s recovery, but she also credits her own determination as a decisive factor. “If you don’t want to stop, you won’t,” she says. “In the end, a lot of it comes down to how you see yourself. I used to feel people were always judging me, but now I feel I don’t care what they think. Why should I let them control my happiness?”